Magic in the Ditches

I’ll admit it — I love most of the plants that reasonable people consider weeds.  I especially love the fluffy floaty kinds that generate horrendous allergies in most of my friends.  I can’t help it!  I root for the underdog.

I never really learned what most of the common plants around my neighborhood were except for those I could eat, like blueberries, black raspberries, nasturtium, marigold, and Queen Anne’s Lace – whose roots are wild carrot (sooo delicious, unless you accidentally confuse it with hemlock).

I found out in my teens that my grandmother Alma used to know the common and Latin names for every plant in the state (or so it seemed).  She made a point to learn them all when she was 14 and left home to be a domestic and a schoolteacher in a one-room school house, a few miles horseback ride from the house where she boarded.  (*grin* It sounds so romantic put like that, but I can only imagine the difficulty of the winters.)  When she passed away, I was only just beginning to get to know her — the real Alma behind the plump and airy Grandma persona — so I made a resolution to try and learn about the plants around me in her honor.

I have another confession.  I didn’t do very well on that resolution.  But in plucky midwestern fashion, against the odds, I decided to give it another go.  I started on a good foot when I took some courses in essential oil therapies, learning the important differences between species of plants that may share common names but produce vastly different oils.  Then baby steps… I bought a tree and wildflower identification guide for my state, fell madly in love with the catalpa trees in the city, then trekked off with my guide under my arm into the woods.  I didn’t go until fall was already creeping in, but I was still able to spot and identify over 20 different species of wildflowers on my walk in one afternoon.  Not only did it boost my confidence in the possibility that I can still learn these things, it felt so rewarding to walk the same paths but suddenly feel like I was surrounded by dear friends because I recognized their faces and knew them by name.  Somehow that experience, and the awe of knowing whoever or whatever created all of them also created me reaffirmed my devotion to the beauty, mystery and connection of the natural world.

Okay, I’m done being misty… probably.  But I can’t promise I won’t still wax poetic. :)

Here are a few of the common faces of my neighborhood of which I am now especially fond:

common yarrowachillea millefolium – named for the legend that Achilles used this herb to treat bleeding wounds during the Trojan war.  I read a rather lovely albeit frightening love spell with yarrow that tells you whether he loves you – by making your nose bleed endlessly.  According to Cunningham, an infusion of yarrow flowers if drunk will improve psychic powers.  This one is easy to spot because of its feathery, fern-like leaves.

new england aster & pearly everlasting

indian pipemonotropa uniflora – a waxy, bell-shaped single flower on a thick stalk, looking rather like an alien fungus

canada goldenrod
solidago cnadensis – a staple of the fields and prairies.

new england asteraster novae-angliae – charming purple stars with yellow centers

pearly everlasting
anaphalis margaritacea – white pearl-shaped buds with yellow centers, like clusters of tiny lotuses

common tansytanacetium vulgare – heavy clumps of bright yellow button flowers. the leaves of the tansy are often used as a substitute for sage in sachets, prompting me to wonder if they could be used as a sage substitute in magical workings.  be wary, however, as this flower contains a toxic oil.

field & bull thistlecirsium discolor & vulgare – gorgeous, purple and spiny, but the field thistle is slightly less prickly. In Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, he gives this spell to call the spirits: place some thistle in boiling water.  remove from the heat and lie or sit beside the pot.  As the steam rises, call the spirits and listen carefully – they may answer your questions.

orange hawkweed

evening primroseoenothera biennis – bright yellow with four petals, has a rather intriguing x-shaped center (sigma) which I’m sure could be used symbolically somehow, eh? also pollinated by the sphinx moths at night, a rather romantic and mysterious notion. this plant was one of three named for me in a dream once years ago.

prairie cloverdalea candida – a slim and unassuming flower but it can send roots over five feet deep into the prairie soil in search of water.  a great emblem for hidden strength and determination if I ever saw one.

orange hawkweed – hieracium aurantiacum  – colorfully also called “devil’s paintbrush” or “king-devil,” this flower was named hawkweed after a folk belief that hawks ate the flowers to improve their vision.  perhaps a nice flower for your altar when you wish to see beyond the veil?

swamp buttercupranunculus hispidus – delicate and cheerful, with five cupped petals.  I was excited to find three of these on my walk.


Speaking of plants that give out fluffy drifting sneeze-inducing seeds, I thought it would be fun sometime to use them for a spell – focusing your intentions on the blossom as a whole, then plucking and releasing them in the wind or blowing on them to watch them fly off carrying a million little seeds to grow and manifest your desires.  Then, of course, I realized everyone and their mother does that all the time, wishing on dandelions.  I am more in love with that practice now than I ever was before, and now I find myself driven to make wishes on every aster, thistle and milkweed I pass as well!

In all, it was a lovely afternoon, I hugged some trees, spun around in some circles and enjoyed seeing, truly, the wealth of magical and wild resources sprouting up all around in those beautiful weedy ditches.

There was also this giant fungus that felt like the chin of a beluga whale, or so I imagined (I’ve never met a beluga – I’m landlocked).

baby beluga

I realize I’m still learning, so if you see anything here I’ve incorrectly identified, please let me know.  :)

Hope all is well for you!




I recently visited an art museum exhibit on the mourning statues from the court of the Duke of Burgundy, and I was moved by their visual representation of the leveling power of grief.  At the funeral for the Duke in 1419, black robes were handed out among the attendees to be worn over their clothes, concealing all symbols of rank and status, and uniting clergy, nobility, and the poor into one class for a fleeting moment.  All were equally powerless under death.

A local choir ensemble prepared a special concert of medieval music in conjunction with the Mourners exhibition, and you can listen to or download the songs by clicking on the picture above and scrolling to the bottom of the page.  The recordings are haunting and beautiful.

I also recently made an emotional discovery while rifling through an old file of family history archives.  My immediate family uses the nickname “Addie” for me.  I had known since I was younger that this was the name of an ancestor who had died at a young age of typhoid during the family’s westward movement in a covered wagon from Ohio.  By chance last week, I stumbled across her obituary, which I had never before read or even known to exist.  Although written in an age where infant mortality rates were over 20% in America, and death on the plains was an everyday occurrence that could not interrupt the daily necessities of hard labor required to survive, this passage is written with more depth and eloquence than I have ever seen in an obituary in my time.

Friday, September 16, 1892
Gray County Kansas

Miss Addie M_, aged 15 years and three months, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. D. M_, died at the family residence last Monday after a very brief illness, and was buried in the Cimarron Cemetery Tuesday afternoon.  It is said that “the remorseless past stands ever near, breathing through the broken cords of life its never-ending dirge.”  Death invades every home, and “life after life flowers out from the darkness but to sink back into it again.”  And so Death’s silent and remorseless step trod the precincts of David M_’s home and with his icy fingers sundered the cord that bound their darling to earth and set her spirit wending its way into eternity, shocking friends and making desolate the hearts of relatives – the more cruel, apparently, because of her youth, as she had just fairly started up life’s incline, at the summit seemingly such beautiful consummations awaiting her grasp.  Death met and claimed her, but remorseless as death is, and possessing power to kill, he cannot extinguish the light of  a correct life left behind.  The sympathy of the entire community is extended to the bereaved parents.

To this article was appended the following:

October 14, 1892

As we go to press, it is reported that David M_, who has been sick for several days past, is dying.  A daughter was buried a short time ago, and two other children are sick.

October 21, 1892

David M_, of whom mention was made in these columns last week died about 3 o’clock Monday morning of typhoid fever.


My great-great grandfather died at age 38, only one month after the death of his daughter Addie, leaving his grieving wife Mary alone in a sod house on 160 acres of plains, a widow with six surviving children, including one 18-month old baby (born en route as they crossed Illinois) and a seventh child on the way — my great-great aunt Clara, who would be born six months after her father’s death.

Addie and her father David were buried at a fork in the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas in an unmarked grave for 98 years, until 1990, when my relatives pooled their money to erect a gravestone at the site.  Mary left Kansas shortly after the death of her child and husband, moving her brood of seven another 500 miles alone.


Although the typical season for this is autumn, I am taking some time this week to honor the memory of all those who have gone before, buried in plains and forests and along mountains and rivers, in this country and overseas.

Rest in peace, beloved family.  Your final resting place may not be known, but you have not been forgotten.


Alma + Fred, in memoriam

Love you, gma & gpa.


Alma and the almighty Eggshell

My paternal grandmother was named Alma.  A comfortingly plump woman with thinning baby-blond hair and large pink-rimmed glasses on a gold chain, she cooked everything with Crisco, never used a sponge (only dishrags), and I never saw her wear anything other than a house dress, pantyhose, and giant fake pearl clip-on earrings.  Her favorite term of endearment was “Louse Poop,” and whenever she wasn’t really following a conversation, she would sigh, “yeah, right…” as though she had never heard the phrase spoken with a sarcastic tone.

This woman left her parents at age 14 to be a domestic servant, then to teach in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, and she taught me how to “puss” my soup if it was too hot.  I didn’t find out “puss” wasn’t a real English verb meaning “to blow on something to cool it” until I was about 20.  (It means “kiss” in Swedish.)  I never heard my grandmother talk about religion, or saw her go to church.  The regular weekend routine usually just involved bacon, eggs scrambled with milk and sausage, and bourbon highballs at 4:30 p.m.

Alma was also the queen of outlandish home remedies.  Have athlete’s foot?  Go walk in the dewy grass at sunrise.  Got a stye?  Rub a gold wedding band on wool and hold that on your eye.  My dad always laughed when these cures came up in conversation, but secretly I believed in, and desperately wanted to know them all.  Heartbreakingly, I never got the chance to sit down and talk to her about them.

So over the last several years, I have made many futile attempts to find examples of other remedies like Alma’s, and to figure out where they come from.  Earlier in the summer I renewed my search again, and this time, finally, I had tremendous luck.

By grace, I stumbled upon UCLA’s archive of folk medicine.  Not only did it contain variants of Alma’s foot-dew and wedding ring eye cures, but I was able, for the first time, to shed some light on one of her more confounding suggestions — putting an eggshell over a bleeding nose.  I entered a few search terms in their database, and came up with the following:

“If one’s nose bleeds and will not stop bleeding, take an egg shell and let three drops of blood fall in it and throw into the fire, thereupon the bleeding will stop.”

I stared at this prescription for hours.  I found myself completely fascinated by the symbolism and ritual of the cure.  And on top of that, I was transfixed by the source.

Ethnicity Of Origin Pennsylvania German

Now, as far as I knew, Alma’s heritage was a mixture of German and Swedish, and the all-American who-knows-what.  In a recent endeavor to uncover my family history, I’d confirmed a rumor that my mother’s mother’s line was Pennsylvania Dutch — we landed in PA in 1732 and camped there for a good hundred years before moving west toward Ohio and Iowa.  This had elicited a good deal of excitement on my end, as I’d just recently learned about the Pennsylvania Dutch folk-magic tradition known as Pow Wow or Braucherei.  Now I learn that I may have some Pennsylvania Dutch folk traditions on my father’s side as well!

I immediately went out and hunted down used copies of some massive collections of Midwestern folk beliefs listed as sources by UCLA, and have been perusing them with glee ever since they arrived.  In case someone else out there is looking for long lost remedies or simply carries a torch for some old-time superstition, I’d like to share some of these  curious remnants every now and again.  To start us off, I bring to you now a collection of folk wisdom regarding Alma’s favorite coagulator: the eggshell.

  1. To cure boils, eat eggshells.
  2. [But…] If you handle too many egg shells, you will get warts.
  3. After you eat an egg, crush the shells to avoid harm or bad luck.
  4. To protect against caterpillars, scatter about your cabbage bed shells of eggs blessed for the Easter feast.
  5. Chickens will lay if fed ground eggshells.
  6. [Not just for chickens…] Keeping eggshells will cause fertility.
  7. [Alternately…] Keeping eggshells will ward off fire.
  8. For epilepsy, use eggshell tea.
  9. To dream about broken eggshells means gossip.
  10. In order to be assured that a cake will rise, put the eggshells in the cupboard until the cake is baked.
  11. If you make a wish on the first Easter egg you break and put the shells under the pillow at night, your wish will come true.
  12. Eggshells burned during a thunderstorm will protect the house against lightning.
  13. Crush eggshells before throwing them away, or the witches may use them for boats.

Hm… sounds to me like kind of a cozy way to travel!  Or as Alma would say, “Absolutely elegant!”  Until next time…